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On a Coding Diet The Place for STEM Development in Nigeria

Nigeria will need STEM development to participate in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the evidence suggests that STEM development works best when it emphasizes already existing resource strengths. 

On 10 July 2019, Singapore announced that all its primary school pupils will take mandatory coding classes from 2020. In the wake of this news, Nigerians took to social media to reflect on Nigeria’s development and ultimately concluded that the country has little hope of competing on a global scale in the future. Truth be told, things do not look very promising for Nigeria at the moment. However, Nigeria’s prospects of relevance in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ do not depend as much on its progress in science and technology (STEM) as some might think. Or, at least, not in the way we expect it to.

In making this argument, certain facts are worth noting. Amongst the top 20 richest people in the world, for example, only 30 per cent made their fortune directly from STEM-related areas. Others are fashion retailers, financial experts, oil magnates and stockbrokers. This appears to be the case even with new-generation billionaires. Only 40 per cent of the world’s billionaires under the age of 40 made their fortune from technology. Despite this, however, these numbers show that the tech industry is the largest individual contributor to the list of the world’s richest people.

Likewise, out of the 20 largest economies, services constitute over 40 per cent of GDP in at least 50 per cent of the countries. The service industry in the US contributes approximately 80 per cent of the country’s GDP. Among the countries in the top 20, only South Korea is regarded as heavily reliant on technology in securing its place among the economic superpowers. These trends point out something significant: perhaps our path to global relevance as a country is in developing what we have rather than trying to make false claims to what we do not have. This does not discountenance the crucial role STEM played in building fortunes or developing economies, it just means that STEM was an instrument in enhancing their strongest income-generating resource. But what are (or should be) Nigeria’s strongest income generators in 2019?

FROM NIGERIA TO THE WORLD: OUR AREAS OF GLOBAL STRENGTH

It is not hard to see why Nigeria has struggled with performance in STEM. The strong foundation required to push development in these areas have been lacking over time for reasons to do with corrupt administrations, outdated educational systems, poor infrastructure and scarcity of trained personnel. Nigerians who have made impact in these areas have largely done so from abroad, where there is access to better education and infrastructure.

Despite facing similar problems, there are certain sectors that have made significant contributions to raising Nigeria’s profile on the world stage both within and outside Nigeria. The entertainment industry is one. Musicians such as Fatai Rolling Dollar, Orlando Julius, King Sunny Ade, Onyeka Onwenu Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Femi Kuti have consistently produced noteworthy music and they have done so from Nigeria. New-generation artistes such as Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Asa and D’Banj have fan bases that extend far beyond the African continent to the extent that collaborations between Nigerian artistes and other award-winning musicians such as Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rick Ross and Drake are becoming increasingly commonplace. These endorsements and recognition speak to the increasing relevance of Nigerian artistes.

Nollywood is the third largest film industry in the world after Hollywood (USA) and Bollywood (India), and continues to grow at a rapid pace, generating more than $7 billion for the Nigerian economy. The quality of movies produced has improved over the years and their presence on platforms such as Netflix as well as the recent acquisition of the Nollywood studio ROK by French media giant, Canal+ TV, are encouraging signs of the rising relevance of the Nigerian film industry. In fact, total cinema revenue from Nigerian films could reach up to $22 million in 2021. Stage plays and the theatre, first made popular in the country by the late Hubert Adedeji Ogunde, are enjoying some a renaissance thanks to concerted private initiatives and with the right investment can also be a useful addition to the Nigerian economy.

Another area of strength, albeit dwindling, is our sports sector, particularly sports such as football and athletics. Nigeria has been winning medals at the Olympic Games since 1964, with its athletes winning medals at most competition levels. Its football team won a gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and a silver medal at the Beijing games in 2008. Nigeria has produced top athletes such as Blessing Okagbare, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Davidson Ezinwa and Falilat Ogunkoya-Osheku; and footballers such as Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Okocha, Emmanuel Amunike and John Mikel Obi have also played and won trophies at the highest level. The country has consistently qualified for the men’s World Cup since 1994 and has won the male Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) three times, has a record for the highest number of third-place finishes, and won the female AFCON all but one time. All this happened despite controversies over unpaid bonuses, questionable selection policies and corruption scandals which have stood in the way of Nigeria fulfilling its huge sports potential.

Lastly, Nigeria is endowed with key ingredients for a booming tourism industry: beautiful landscapes, diverse local cuisine, beach-friendly weather nearly all year-round, a vibrant hospitality sector and various tourist attractions in different parts of Nigeria that could capture the interest of travellers if marketed effectively. Other areas of potential global impact include the fashion industry and the organic skincare sector. 

MAXIMIZING NIGERIA’S POTENTIAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

The key question is what will it take for Nigeria to maximize its potential in the foregoing areas? The current metrics do not suggest that this will happen anytime soon. Many regions of the country are becoming more unsafe due to ethnic and religious conflict yet the success of the tourism industry, for example, significantly depends on an assurance of security—something that the Nigerian government cannot guarantee at the moment. Poor administration within the sports sector has significantly constrained Nigeria’s sporting capacity and, while talented sportspeople are still being produced, they lack the necessary support, exposure and technical know-how to become world beaters. As a result, many are ending up in obscure football leagues or switching allegiances when given the choice. Nigeria’s musicians are making great strides. However, it might not be enough. Good music may enhance foreign investment in Nigerian musicians without necessarily resulting in a corresponding investment in Nigeria.

The most reasonable answer will be to ensure that an enabling environment is created for the entertainment, sports and tourism industries to thrive. This foists certain crucial responsibilities on the government. The conflict situation around the country must be resolved through decisive military action and dialogue for Boko Haram as well as ranching procedures for settlement of the Fulani Herdsmen. This will help to preserve tourist sites such as Sukur Cultural Landscape, Ancient Kano Walls in Kano and the Yankari National Park in Bauchi. Good transport networks must also be developed connecting different areas of the country to enhance easy travel for prospective tourists. Existing tourist sites in need of maintenance must also be refurbished and renovated where necessary.

Nigeria has about 44 sports stadiums, 18 of which are at 20,000 capacity and above. Many of these stadiums have suffered from poor maintenance over the years and are evidence of how much investment needs to be made for the refurbishment of existing sports infrastructure. Furthermore, Nigerian athletes and professional sports leagues in Nigeria must be given the exposure and sponsorship required to compete globally. The struggle for exposure may be partly attributed to factors such as inconsistent investment by stakeholders such as Globacom and MTN, lack of organized league structures (particularly at the grassroots) and administrative crisis including one that almost led to a FIFA ban in 2018. Concerted effort must be made, ideally through collaboration between the government and the private sector, to create structures and sports programs that enhance sports development. Such initiatives include sports scholarship programs at all levels of education, sport academies in different parts of the country and collaborations with foreign sports organizations for mutually beneficial exchange programs.

There is a place for STEM development in Nigeria and that place is a crucial one. One could argue that all Nigeria’s sectors cannot function effectively without some STEM development. However, Nigeria should be looking at taking a more organic route: using existing resources in the arts, tourism and sports to make the kind of global impact that will, in turn, result in increased economic growth and foreign investment. Income accruing from such growth and investment can then be directed towards developing the infrastructure and securing the necessary expertise for STEM development. If we’ve been able to gain a modicum of relevance in the arts, tourism and sports without heavy STEM influence, imagine what we could do with more